Add up the emergency loans the Federal Reserve distributed to banks between 2007 and 2009 — when the American economy lurched closer to collapse than anyone had previously thought possible — and it’s an impressive picture.
On Friday, Bloomberg News made available the fullest version yet of its data on Fed emergency lending, a subject the news organization has written about numerous times in the past year. The Bloomberg release includes records of about 50,000 transactions the Fed made through seven different financial mechanisms.
At their peak, these seven programs represented $1.2 trillion in loans to banks and financial institutions — the high-water mark of a massive, systemic bailout whose details the country’s central banking authority has not always seemed eager to divulge.
Much of the information included in Friday’s release has been previously reported in Bloomberg coverage, but this week marked the first time that funds from the seven programs have been presented as a series of daily loans to 407 individual banks.
“There were reasons for doing it. There are always reasons for doing it,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, referring to the Fed’s lending to troubled banks at a moment when the country’s entire financial architecture seemed to be in jeopardy.
At the same time, Baker said, transparency is important in matters like this.
“This is public money,” Baker told The Huffington Post. “The public has every reason in the world to know where it went.”
Some of the data included in Friday’s compilation was obtained in the face of considerable resistance. Bloomberg News had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about which institutions received loans under two of the seven lending programs. Disclosure did not come until Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, brought a lawsuit against the Fed that nearly made it to the Supreme Court.
The Clearing House Association, which represents some of the country’s largest commercial banks, argued at the time that making such information public would undermine investor confidence in the banks that accepted loans, and would make it less likely that banks would seek emergency assistance in the future.
Friday’s report, like Bloomberg’s earlier coverage, indicated that many of the banks that received Fed loans ended up realizing substantial financial benefits as a result.
An earlier Bloomberg article estimated that banks netted about $13 billion when all was said and done, even after paying off interest on their loans. The Fed has contested this figure, but in Friday’s report, Bloomberg repeated the assertion that borrowers were left better off than they had been before.
“The fact that these institutions benefited enormously, I don’t think you can really dispute,” Baker said.
Even as critics have accused the Fed of being less than forthcoming, few people claim that the central bank did the wrong thing by stepping in to backstop a financial system that seemed to be on the verge of imploding.
“In the middle of the financial crisis, this is what you need. This is what a central bank is supposed to do,” said James Wilcox, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
Wilcox compared the financial crisis to a forest fire — except, he said, “forest fires are more predictable in the path they’re going to take.”